The long, slow work of love

grassfire“People generally suppose that they don’t understand one another very well, and that is true; they don’t. But some things they communicate easily and fully. Anger and contempt and hatred leap from one heart to another like fire in dry grass. The revelations of love are never complete or clear, not in this world. Love is slow and accumulating, and no matter how large or high it grows, it falls short. Love comprehends the world, though we don’t comprehend it. But hate comes off in slices, clear and whole — self-explanitory, you might say. You can hate people completely and kill them in an instant.”

~Wendell Berry, in Jayber Crow

I love the book Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. When I first read it several years ago I wrote this paragraph in my journal in awe. At first the sentence, “Love is slow and accumulating and no matter how large or high it grows, it falls short” gave me pause. What did he mean, that love “falls short?” Isn’t it supposed to be the strongest force in the universe? But as I thought about it more I realized how true this is of our love for each other. It is so hard to show love and receive it. For every loving, selfless action or word that builds love and trust, we stumble and show our fear, bitterness, jealousy, and even anger, even to those we love the most. As Doctor Phil always used to say, “It takes ten ‘atta boys’ to make up for one ‘you jerk.'”

Love is slow and accumulating, it takes a lifetime to build trust, to feel safe, known, seen, and loved for who we are, and to know, see, and love others.  But anger, contempt, fear, judgement, scorn, and hatred leap from one heart to another like fire in dry grass. You can hate people completely and kill them in an instant.

This is why expressions like “love the sinner, but hate the sin” come across as hate, even from well-meaning people. Love is slow and accumulating, and cannot be communicated in the same sentence as the word hate. But the hate leaps from one heart to another like fire in dry grass, leaps from the phrase, “love the sinner, but hate the sin” to the heart of the one being called a sinner. And the hate, coming in the same package as promised love, becomes even more powerful.

I had a boyfriend in college who said to me, “I love you but I hate that you’re fat.” Did this make me stop overeating? Yes, but it didn’t make me healthy. It made me starve myself instead, eating as few as 500 calories a day for months, ruining my metabolism, forcing my body into starvation mode, and setting myself up for many more years of unhealthy eating. The hatred leapt to my heart like fire, and has taken the better part of two decades to extinguish.

When I posted my “Bake for them two” essay three weeks ago, hundreds of people commented saying I was wrong and homosexuality was wrong, and some of them said it as kindly as they knew how, and others didn’t bother with kindness. But all the comments merged together like sparks into a single fire and I felt the flames against my skin. And I understood more than ever why LGBT people were leaving church and fleeing from these flames, and, worse, why they were catching fire and hating themselves and harming themselves and dying.

I had a friend, Andrew, who came out to me in high school and made his first suicide attempt a few months later. His parents and his church told him that he had to change to be loved and accepted by them and by God. And he tried, but he couldn’t change. And he feared the fires of hell but he feared the sparks of hatred in this life even more. He was found that time, running his car in the closed garage. I went to college and he moved to the West Coast and we lost touch for fifteen years. Then, in 2007, I reconnected with our mutual friend Tammy, Andrew’s best friend. “Andrew will be so excited that we’re back in touch with you!” she said. Five days later Andrew made his fourth or fifth suicide attempt, and this one was successful. For five days he had still been alive. I think I had his email address from Tammy but I hadn’t gotten in touch yet.

Love is slow and accumulating. But you can hate people completely and kill them in an instant.

So many people wrote to me after Bake for them two saying that they had not heard a message of love from a Christian in years. Many others were mad at me for screening the comments and posting more from people who agreed with me than from those who disagreed. Hundreds of people wanted me to post their Biblical arguments against homosexuality, their version of “love the sinner but hate the sin.” But love is slow and accumulating and I want Ten Thousand Places to be a place where love can be heard over the arguments.

My father, Matt Kantrowitz, and some of his friends shared my post on Facebook, where one woman commented that she was not a hater, that she was just calling sin sin. This was my father’s reply:

In 30 years of ministry with those society considers the “worst” sinners: prison ministry, I have learned one thing: We can’t scold people into the kingdom. Our rebuke: “Calling sin sin” comes across as disapproval, judgementalism, scorn, and rejection. We take their sin (and our own ) seriously. But we realize they will find salvation and forgiveness for their sin, healing and transformation to live a new life: they will find all this a lot faster if we incarnate God’s LOVE to them than if we sin against them by lecturing them when God is calling us to love them.

Love is slow and accumulating. The revelations of love are never complete or clear in this world. But we can do our best to communicate them by showing up in the prisons, in our workplace, in our homes, and in our churches, alongside those who are hurt and struggling. We can sit and listen to people’s stories and share our own. As theologian Paul Tillich said, “The first duty of love is to listen.” But we can’t communicate love in the same sentence as hate. Love can’t be heard in the sentence, “I love you, but…”

Christians, let’s dig deeper and begin to do the long, slow work of love.

*****

For those looking for more ways to listen and love, please check out my post Bake for them two follow-up and resources. And if you’d like to read more about my dad’s prison ministry, check out his blog, Visiting Jesus in Prison.

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18 comments on “The long, slow work of love

  1. Jessica, this is beautiful and so helpful to remember. I too have had a friend whose suicide was partly related to her sexuality and the challenges she had reconciling that with her family system and faith community. That really hurts and makes you think about things. (I haven’t read David Gushee’s book on the topic yet, but I gather this kind of thing played a big role in this thinking.) Thanks for writing vulnerably and with such great encouragement.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hope Wiltfong says:

    This is fantastic – thank you so much for sharing. Love is what we must concentrate on… always!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. soundtek says:

    high five… you are doing a good thing

    Liked by 1 person

  4. brianbalke says:

    Jessica:

    What you say here pierces my heart like a sword. Words are such a poor means of communicating our experience of loving. We’ve hollowed ourselves out with words, using them as a means of defense, when it is in the heart that the truth of ourselves is revealed.

    You are so right in pointing out that love cannot pass judgment. All that I have ever been able to do is to hold my heart up as a mirror and offer: “Here – find the strength in yourself.” It means stepping into all the pain of their confusion and loss, and letting the Divine Presence enter into their seeing, and hoping that they discover that, yes, none of the “wrongs” that have been used to label them make a difference except in helping them understand the beauty of feeling right in the presence of Unconditional Love.

    So, yes, it breaks my heart to hear you reveal how people use words to keep out things that we don’t understand, and therefore fear as sources of corruption, when if we would just open our hearts a little wider, the love that would pour forth would heal us all.

    Brian

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Rachael says:

    Yes, yes, and yes. Thanks you for saying this. You are spot on about why we are leaving church. Yesterday I said goodbye to a church community I was part of for several years. As loving a people as they are, their message of rejection was louder than their love.

    Like

  6. A beautiful piece, Jessica. I’ve only been following your blog for a short time, but everything that I’ve read of yours rings true in my heart. One thing that I’ve said when folks are criticizing others: “Our job is to love, not judge.” I think that’s what Jesus intended. (I’m a preacher’s kid, too. a 62 year old one.)

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Mike says:

    Thank you for writing. Your posts are a blessing!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. thank you for writing this. I agree with earthmother52. what you say “rings true”. thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Elaine Cohoon Miller says:

    Beautifully written from a loving heart. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Dave Hindman says:

    Jessica, you’re a fine writer. I don’t agree with you on many points and I think your spiritual discernment is a bit off the track – (Brennan Manning has some theological accuracy issues) but your focus on Christian love, in general, and Christian love to the gay community, in particular, are, I believe, spot on.
    I seem, however, to sense you do not believe that the Truth of Scripture can be communicated in the depth, the breadth, and the healing warmth of God’s love, concerning the issue of being gay. The principle of speaking the Truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) has been extremely meaningful to me – and more so with each passing year. It is an art into which one grows. And, like love, it does take time. But I am mindful that using one, while neglecting the other, always short circuits the process of God’s purposes for people. Love, without Truth, isn’t really love. And Truth, without love, is just being a clanging gong or resounding cymbal – in short, all you’re doing is making noise. I am convinced that speaking the Truth – IN LOVE – makes music.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Dave, yes, I do believe there is beauty in speaking the truth in love, AND I believe that God’s Truth is a different thing than our interpretation of scripture. I took three semesters of systematic theology in seminary, five of Greek and Hebrew, studied the Bible in its original languages, studied the cultural and historical contexts of both the Old and the New Testament, and read hundreds of books by hundreds of Christian writers with many different perspectives and interpretations of scripture. And what I came away with was that any theology, including the Evangelical theology that was taught at my seminary, is just us human beings making our best attempt to put the things of God into words and give them structure. Good theology isn’t God’s Truth, it’s our best attempt at collating and describing that Truth, revealed through scripture, tradition, experience, and reason (the good old Wesleyan Quadrilateral). In the context of homosexuality, there are different interpretations of scripture, and, yes, I think it’s important to share our interpretations as well as to listen to others’. But that does not give us the full understanding of God’s Truth. In order to get closer to that fullness, we need to listen to the experience of people in the LGBT community who know first hand what it means to be gay. THEY are trying to speak the truth in love to US, and if we don’t listen to them then we aren’t hearing the fullness of God’s Truth. This is why I love The Gay Christian Network, because they create space for people from different perspectives to share. You can read an essay there by a gay Christian who interprets scripture and God’s call on his life to mean that he should be celibate, and you can read another essay by a gay Christian who interprets scripture and God’s call in his life to mean that God blesses committed, monogamous marriages of same-sex couples just as God blesses straight marriage.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Jayber Crow is among my favorite fictional theologians. I’ve read that book so many times that Jayber feels like a real person to me, but somehow the quote you shared has never caught my eye until today. What a gift!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. amyptucson says:

    This is a great followup to “Bake,” which is how I found you. I appreciate your wisdom, your straightforward way of expressing things, your truth-telling. I’m sorry that ANYONE found reason to criticize you or talk you into anything. It’s *your* blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Alethea Eason says:

    Reblogged this on The Heron's Path and commented:
    A wonderful essay on the nature of both love and hate.

    Like

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